For the nation’s pop stars, success in the UK market is generally followed by an attempt to crack the rest of the world. Global dominion of this sort is rarely available to towns and villages, but Castle Combe, Wiltshire, is a glittering exception.
It is two streets’ worth of ludicrously cute stone cottages plus a pair of ludicrously cute pubs and a ludicrously cute church. Lush hillsides overlook the village. There’s a low bridge over a shallow, glass-clear river. A market cross. (No castle, really, just the remains of a very old motte and bailey). Flowers caress the terraced cottages that line the narrow main road, creating the effect of a very fragrant wind tunnel.
Castle Combe is therefore, been proclaimed England’s prettiest village, in much the same way that the US army is proclaimed the world’s most powerful military. Nobody wants to actually test them because they know they’d be obliterated. Prettiest in the Cotswolds? Pah. Prettiest in England. And – prettiest in the world?
There is evidently some kind of global strategy attempt afoot. The village appeared in the British musical Doctor Dolittle, in 1967, then went to Hollywood in the 2000s with roles in Stardust and The Wolfman. And last week came the news that Castle Combe was even in the process of cracking Japan.
Fosse Farmhouse, a B&B to the north-west of the village, is so famous in the land of the rising sun that two members of that country’s royal family have stayed there. A chance conversation with owner Caron Cooper 30 years before had inspired a visiting Japanese couple who wanted to found an English-themed B&B in their homeland.
This was so successful that Cooper began receiving more and more bookings from Japanese people, including a prince and princess in 1994. Fosse Farmhouse then featured in a marketing campaign designed to attract Japanese tourists to the UK.
As The Times reported, it has more recently become the setting of a popular new animeé show, Kinmoza! which reels in five million viewers per episode. It follows the adventures of a scone-baking little girl who lives in a farmhouse with her mother (based on Cooper). Said adventures include visiting Cirencester and Kemble Station, according to Somerset Live. It sounded thrilling, but I decided to save the DVDs for a rainy day and visit Castle Combe for myself.
It was a hot, clear Thursday afternoon, and there was a strong sense of the confected Disneyland village about the place. The residents were mostly invisible, and multinational groups of backpacked visitors moved around with languorous curiosity. In this context, even the signs of authentic village life – honesty boxes and home-made cakes outside front doors, a notice of a parish council meeting – seemed like well-sourced film props.
All this probably gives the impression that Castle Combe is a honey-coloured honeytrap that lives to slurp up tourist yen. This is not the case. Sure, there’s a tea room and coffee shop that make a friendly living from daytrippers, but a few doors down there’s some timeless English gerroff-my-lawn-ism in the form of a sign that asks visitors not to stray on to the private pathway in front of some cottages. Strains of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ rose through my mind as I patriotically obeyed the sign’s bidding. This is a real village, true to its roots, unchanged by its global fame.
Seven pretty good reasons to visit Castle Combe
Follow The Street (for such is its name) uphill from the market square for all of 10 seconds, and you’ll find a public footpath that ascents into the woods by the roadside. Follow it up the hill for a walk that, depending on the lushness of the foliage, allows pretty views of the village below.
The Manor House, a hotel that occupies the country house at the foot of the village, is about as gorgeous as it gets. Luxurious rooms overlook the idyllic river Bybrook. The hotel serves Michelin-starred food and has its own golf course. Rooms from £180 a night.
The pit stop
The Old Stables coffee shop will serve you all the usual tea and cake and tourist stuff in a rustic setting. It’s mud-friendly, which is good news for dog-owners, walkers and cyclists.
The racing track
Castle Combe Circuit is a couple of minutes from the centre of the village. Its busy calendar includes track days and races.
There are two: the White Hart and the Castle Inn. The Castle Inn seems better for food.
St Andrew’s Church is one of those medieval wool trade churches that appear far too big for the villages they serve. Parts of it go back to the 14th century and earlier.
Book ahead for an afternoon tea in the low-ceilinged, knick-knack filled Old Rectory Tearoom.